What is the Future of Agricultural Sustainability?
My community tells a story of rural farmlands, dated red barns, and a heavy economic dependence on both agriculture and cement production. I grew up frolicking in neighboring soybean fields, seeing deer prancing through corn and wheat crops, and admiring the vibrant colors of fresh fruits and vegetables in local farmers’ markets. My middle school sat next to one of the largest lime reserves in the township, and the skyline I see every morning from my bus abounds with towering mountains. This is rural Slatington of the Lehigh Valley, PA.
While these are fond memories of my childhood, my adolescent years made me aware of growing concerns in the Valley’s local food economy. Specifically, I learned that the Lehigh Valley is experiencing the most severe climate change in Pennsylvania. Since the early 1990s, temperatures have increased by over two degrees Celsius annually. Around me, I saw the rise of urban development that drew in over 140,000 residents but also consumed over 2,200 acres of cropland each year. The revitalization of previously economically-challenged cities of Allentown and Bethlehem brought with it an increasing demand for cement and a consequential escalation in CO2 emissions and other air pollutants. School overcrowding and new public education infrastructure construction exacerbated his industrial demand. In fact, Pennsylvania is the largest producer of annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the United States, surpassed only by Texas and California.
While this urbanization has inevitably stimulated employment and manufacturing output, the drawbacks for my agricultural community could not be more apparent. Today, no state funds are being directed toward farmland preservation. Since the mid-1950s, farmable fields have plummeted by nearly 80 percent, leaving only around 46,000 acres to be harvested annually. I have seen those once prosperous wheat, corn, and soybean fields reduced to burnt and dried stalks and leaves. I have seen the growing smog covering those once powerful mountains on the horizon, the topology of the valley trapping these low-residing pollutants.
The future promises only the exacerbation of this crisis, however multi-disciplinary STEM initiatives may hold the key to redress these issues.
For example, the production of cement involves burning limestone (calcium carbonate) to produce calcium oxide and carbon dioxide in a process called calcination. These direct emissions, coupled with those indirectly emitted from fossil fuel combustion, mean that for every ton of cement produced, nearly one ton of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. With this local industry blossoming in the last two years, one would imagine that crops are benefiting from increased CO2, but unfortunately, this is a clear example of “too much of a good thing.”
Recent research has proven that excessive CO2 concentration decreases plants’ nutrient absorption, making crops deficient in vital nutrients. Furthermore, these emissions have also been found to reduce crop nitrogen intake, which is critical to plant health and fertilization. Agricultural engineers can address these challenges by investigating Nitrogen Use Efficient (NUE) crops. This new gene therapy technique may hold the key to optimizing nitrogen fixation in corn and wheat crops, which can counteract the negative effects that excess CO2 has on this process.
Furthermore, many chemical and industrial engineers are currently tasked with making CO2 capture and sequestration methods downward-scalable and cost-effective. While many exist already, including direct air collection (DAC), capital and operating costs are exorbitant, hindering their widespread adoption. Fortunately, the Lehigh Valley provides the perfect platform for developing this technology due to its high density of cement plants whose emissions can be combined to be treated in a single CO2 capture facility. STEM research can also be applied to construct cost-effective greenhouses or develop temperature resistant crops using CRISPR gene modification (check out Sophia’s earlier post!). Soil erosion prevention techniques can also be studied and refined to optimize the reuse of diminishing cropland acreage. In summary, diverse STEM tools are critical for the livelihood of the Lehigh Valley farmland and numerous other similar communities across the country. It’s up to our young minds to lead this future generation of sustainable development to keep our lungs clean and plates green!
Nitrogen Use Efficient Crops: http://www.isaaa.org/resources/publications/pocketk/46/default.asp
Agriculture in the Lehigh Valley: http://bethlehem.thelehighvalleypress.com/2014/01/02/farmland-loss-challenges-food-economy
Excess CO2 effects on plant growth: https://phys.org/news/2015-06-carbon-dioxide-air-restrict-ability.html
Direct Air Capture: http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2018/05/direct-air-capture/
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